Closely Observed Trains, also known as Closely Watched Trains, is a 1965 novella by Czech author Bohumil Hrabal. It is his most famous work, in large part due to an extremely successful (I understand, I’ve not yet seen it) 1966 Czech film adaptation of the work. I read Closely Observed Trains in the Abacus edition, translated by Edith Pargeter.
Closely Observed Trains tells the story of Miloš Hrma, a young railway junior dispatcher and signalman returning to work at a minor but strategically important Czech railway station. Miloš has been away for three months, recuperating from a suicide attempt, and is warmly welcomed back by Station Master Lánský and Dispatcher Hubička. The year is 1945, the Germans have lost command of the air-space over the town, but it remains an important rail hub for them and certain key transport trains are nominated by the German high command for “close surveillance” to ensure that they are not delayed by signals failures or problems on the lines.
The novella opens with a short history of Miloš’s family, his great-grandfather who received a pension for injuries received in 1848 and spent his days mocking those who had to work, his grandfather who became a hypnotist and was the only man in town to resist the German advance (and using only the powers of his mind). The tone set is darkly comic, the great-grandfather routinely beaten by those he laughs at, the hypnotist seeing only limited success against the German tanks. These early elements are classically picaresque, but with bleak consequences.
Miloš himself has many worries, he is a virgin and his most recent attempt to change that fact ended in disaster. His friend and to an extent hero, dispatcher Hubička, is to face disciplinary charges following a shocking incident in which this (apparently typically Hrabalian) amorous rogue used all the station’s official stamps on the telegraphist’s backside, and action may be taken against a munitions train marked for “close surveillance”. Miloš is an innocent, a slightly hapless individual, whose confusion about love, affection for those around him and dislike of the suffocating nature of the town he has grown up in marks him as a fairly typical adolescent. Much of the novel then is an account of his misadventures and the comic nature of those around him. Here he tells the stationmaster of an incident in Hubička’s past at another station, where Hubička and a female passenger had sex on the station-master’s couch and tore it in the process:
‘They’d torn the couch!’ wailed the station-master. ‘Ripped the station-master’s couch in half! That is what comes of it when there’s nothing above folks any more! Neither God nor myth, neither allegory nor symbol … We’re on our own now in this world, so everything’s allowed. But not for me! For me there is a God! But for that grunting pig nothing exists but pork, dumplings and cabbage …’
I thought this a tremendous passage, the indignation, the move from an incident as small as a torn couch to the death of God and the birth of the permissive society is a piece of great comic writing. The station-master is absurd in the gravity he places on this small event, which to him is a challenge to the very order of existence itself.
As the novella proceeds, the tone continues to move between the comic and the tragic. A train pulls in, Miloš is ordered on to it at gunpoint, having committed some offence in the eyes of the S.S.:
The engine shook, the planes of snow receded, gleaming, into the distance, thawing snow, ticking away steadily with all its prismatic crystals. In a ditch lay three dead horses, just as the Germans had thrown them out of the wagons in the night. They simply opened the doors and threw out the corpses. Now they lay in the ditch beside the permanent way, legs stretched stiffly towards the sky like columns on which depended the invisible portal of heaven. Engineer Honzík looked at me, and his eyes were full of grief and anger because it was in his section that this close-surveillance transport had been delayed. And it was certainly I who was to blame, so it was only justice that these S.S. men had forced me aboard the engine, and were all the time waiting and wanting to be allowed to place the muzzles of their pistols to the nape of my neck, give the signal, press the trigger and dispatch the bullets into me, and then open the little door …
Death is always close in this novel, at its opening with the crash of a German fighter, with the station-master’s wife’s cruel way of killing livestock so as best to preserve their flavour, in the troop transport left near the station which has been destroyed by partisans, the humorous is never far away from the fatal. Similarly, Miloš is horrified by the sight of trains carrying animals for slaughter, the Germans packing them in for greater efficiency at the cost of terrible suffering on the part of the pigs and cows affected:
I jumped up on the rim of a wagon and looked down into it. And all those cattle were down with strangles, several of them were lying there dead; from one cow’s rump hung a dead and rotting calf … everywhere nothing but terrible pairs of eyes silently reproaching, tortured eyes over which I wrung my hands. A whole train-load of the reproachful eyes of cattle.
I hardly need draw attention to the associations German cattle trucks bring to mind.
So then, black comedy, life in all its backside-stamping glory next to dead animals and the destroyed remnants of German planes and trains. We learn why Miloš attempted suicide, we see his attempts to lose his virginity, we hear him describe the station-master’s hobby of breeding pigeons and that same man’s unlikely dream of one day becoming an Inspector of State Railways, life continues even in wartime.
Hrabal also addresses, gently and quietly though still powerfully, issues of resistance and collaboration. Station-master Lánský has no love of the Germans, but he does not resist them, he simply gets on with his job. Dispatcher Hubička is less compliant, others however openly support the Germans even to the point of changing their names to make them less Czech:
First of all Councillor Zednicek spread out his pocket map of Europe, so that he could use it as an introduction, and expound the military situation of the German armies. When he unfolded the map, holes appeared in it. This was because Councillor Zednicek carried this map in his pocket so persistently that he had worn it out at the folded corners. But every one of those holes was as big as Switzerland. Zednicek favoured us with his interpretation of the situation in the Carpathians, where von Mansfield’s Fifth Army was engaged, the army in which Zednicek’s son Bretislav was also fighting, but on the map the Fifth Army was still stuck fast in one of the worn-away holes; it was a week now since it had got into it, and it still hadn’t managed to climb out of the kettle, so Zednicek’s son was fighting away somewhere in that hole. Just like his father, Bretislav Zednicek didn’t know the German language properly, and had recommended himself to the Germans by excising the Czech accents from his names.
The Councillor goes on to explain how the German army is winning on various fronts, and to speak of life in the protectorate. Again though the fatal and the comic sit side by side, the son lost in a hole in a map, an image both ludicrous and tragic.
In terms of plot, given this is only a 91 page work, I intend to say nothing further. Closely Observed Trains is easily read, the style is immediate and the language not at all difficult to follow. I did note one possible translation error early on (either that or an error in the editing) when certain rail tracks are said to run West to East and certain others by contrast West to East (it seems evident the second group should have been described as running East to West). In general though, the ease with which I read the book and the degree to which I found it both very funny and absolutely horrible speaks to Edith Pargeter’s abilities as a translator and the result of her work is never stilted or awkward (not really surprising, Edith Pargeter was better known as Ellis Peters).
Closely Observed Trains is a work of light comedy, matched to terrible events and appalling consequences. It has huge compassion for its characters, and shows life as something both precious and all too easily lost. It is an immensely accessible work, and as such although it is my first Hrabal it will not be my last.
On a final aside, Bohumil Hrabal famously spent most of his days drinking and writing in a Prague pivnice (pub) called U Zlatého Tygra. On my first trip to Prague, long before I had heard of Hrabal, I ate there as it remains a fairly famous establishment to this day. It’s an atmospheric place, with good food and excellent local beer. However, the staff were spectacularly unfriendly, as indeed were the patrons, despite Prague generally being a fairly friendly town (apparently Tygra is well known for this). I mention it so that if you find yourself in Prague armed with a copy of a work by Hrabal, you can go to his favourite pub and eat and drink where he did, though with perhaps less welcome than he received.